New York

Christopher Wilmarth

Sidney Janis Gallery

Like so many Modernists before him, Christopher Wilmarth sought to ground “transcendental” geometrical forms in order to invest them with self-expressive power, while satisfying the less conspicuous, and perhaps deeper, human need for self-transcendence. There are several standard means of infusing what Plato called the eternal intelligibles with affect. The basic ones—establishing an emotionally resonant proportion between discreet geometrical parts, and/or coloring or shading them—have been in use since antiquity. Wilmarth employs these to advantage, but what makes his art distinctive is that, with a peculiar eloquence, he carries the process of creating a poignant geometry to an almost irrational extreme.

Wilmarth’s deceptively simple Nine Clearings for a Standing Man #8, 1973, is based on an occult, indeed, ironic disequilibrium between the horizontal, three-dimensional base and the “figure” standing on it. That figure itself is a planar construction of transparent etched glass overlaid with opaque black. Here, the parts are in a tense, subtly disproportionate relationship, and chiaroscuro becomes a face-off of fixed opposites that results in an achingly unresolved contradiction. Is-Was (Deep), 1975–76, involves the same elements in more complex and conspicuously dramatic interaction. The central element of white steel barely reconciles the extremes of etched glass and black steel, and the integration of the triangular “base” into the “figure” only adds to the sense of absurdity.

For Wilmarth, irregularity is also an important means of achieving geometrical poetry, as the etched-glass pieces “My Old Books Closed . . . ” and “When Winter on Forgotten Woods Moves Somber . . . ” (both 1979–80) testify. The etching of the glass marks it as a vulnerable material, but also poeticizes and personalizes it, making it into what Robert Pincus-Witten has called a “signature material.” Wilmarth’s titles are clearly essential to lending his work metaphorical meaning, as the series of six drawings of squares entitled Six Clearings for Hank Williams, 1973, underscores. Indeed, as Cornerskin, 1977, and Gnomon’s Parade (Standard), 1980, show, Wilmarth is a master of the poised, isolated moment: of the convergence of geometrical essence (eternal form) and expressive existence (temporal surface). They perform the quintessential Modernist feat: bringing together Constructivism and Expressionism, which Theodor Adorno viewed as the antipodes of modern art, into a seamless whole. As Blue Time Line, 1974, suggests, Wilmarth’s whole effort is to create a geometry that seems peculiarly alive and tangible—an oddly expressive sensation—even as it remains monumentally remote. Reconciling the transcendental and existential, the mechanical and the organic, without sacrificing one to the other, is no mean feat.

Donald Kuspit